Manufacturing for the new democracy: Autodesk University 2011

Software and hardware has never been so powerful and accessible to the ordinary Joe. Autodesk University 2011 is full of examples of democratic engineering. Prepare for the new normal says Will Stirling.

Open innovation, digital fabrication, powerful and disruptive technology, ubiquitous access, paradigm shift, unattainable potential, the democritisation of engineering, scale agnosticism.

The catchphrases describing changes to the world of design and manufacturing here at Autodesk University are as numerous as the smiling Autodesk helpers who help steer visitors around the cavernous conference halls.

Autodesk University (AU) 2011, at the Venetian Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, is a crucible of information, opinion and visions about the future of design engineering. The headline message is clear: YOU, the user, have more power than ever before.

Imagine a product and you can design it, make it and market it yourself. There are fewer restrictions to enabling the manufacture than ever before, the internet is your school, the cloud’s processing power enables you, with 3D printers and rapid prototyping, to make what you want yourself. All this is opening a new world of ‘citizen manufacturing’. In fact, that is one business buzzword I’ve not heard here yet, so I’ll claim that one as mine.

AU is Autodesk’s annual US meet for customers, resellers, analysts and media to announce new launches and explain the company’s business strategy for new products and markets. The acquisitive Oregon-based software giant – with a $7.15bn market cap it is the biggest player in the CAD and simulation software market – doesn’t do anything by halves. Last quarter it made more than 10 acquisitions. The company’s web and cloud applications get more than one million visitors per day, it claims, and Sketchbook, an online application that allows finger drawing on smartpads, has seven million users. The cost of the AU event alone is said to be $1.5 million.

The cloud is the key, Autodesk says emphatically. For many, not least plenty of manufacturers, the cloud’s real meaning is still nebulous. You can outsource your processing and storage to a connected network of third party computers, maximising your computing power and freeing up IT capital we are told. So what? We have computers, IT people and a data centre. Isn’t the cloud risky; how can I guarantee sourcing my data if the internet goes down?

Autodesk’s headline message resonating throughout the presentations is what the IT industry calls the democritisation of software and business processes. Amar Hanspal, senior VP, Platform Solutions and Emerging Business at Autodesk defines the company as a democritiser of software and solutions – “It’s all about getting the solutions into customers hands,” he says. Eighty per cent of the world doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, he says. “Who is working on solving the problem? One of our customers. Who’s building the infrastructure the developing world needs? Autodesk’s customers.”

It’s an evangelical tone, but there is substance to Autodesk’s ‘for the greater good’ approach. The comapny has a big global education programme and gives its software away to colleges and universities, the customers of tomorrow.

The cloud is also essential to what Autodesk calls ‘ubiquitous access’. Its big announcement this week was its debut entry into PLM – product lifecycle management – market. The deliberate strategy is to provide this through the cloud, as software as a service, to lower the price point and give companies with smaller IT budgets access to a hitherto expensive product.

Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO and chairman, gives a simple illustration of how the cloud can empower the new generation. He uses the analogy that in the 1990s one computer would take 10,000 seconds to programme a specific solution at a cost of $0.25. Today the cloud can harness 10,000 computers in one second to solve the same problem, for the same cost. People talk about ‘paradigm shifts’ in business and it has become a cliché, but in this case the phrase is appropriate.


Perhaps conscious of over-hyping the issue, Amar Hanspal emphasises that Autodesk is trying to use the cloud when useful and when it adds to the experience, and is not “doing cloud for cloud’s sake”.

Autodesk’s adoption of the cloud for PLM is a canny move. While the other PLM vendors – Dassault, PTC, Siemens PLM, Arena Solutions and several smaller players – have all worked on some kind of cloud-based application, Autodesk has been noticeably the last to enter the market. It is however, the first company to make its PLM product, Autodesk 360 Nexus, purely cloud-based.

Prices won’t be revealed until official launch in March 2011, but Stephen Bodnar, VP Enterprise and Lifecycle Management, has a cost comparison illustration for a company providing PLM to 200 users. Under the normal product-purchase and maintenance system, the total cost of ownership of PLM for 200 users could be circa $6 million. He says for the same number of users the Autodesk PLM in the cloud version would cost about $500,000, with total upfront costs (the software lease agreement) of just $100,000. If true, that’s another business buzzword that can be substantiated – disruptive technology.

Look out for more blogs and articles straight from the AU event